I lingered long enough in the wooden room to disrobe. It had been years since I took a public bath. And in a foreign country, I am always more conscious about myself. All around me, naked Japanese women untied their shoes, took off their knee-length dresses, put their belongings into lockers and chattered into the hot spring room. It was strange to see so much flesh and skin, and I felt uneasy to witness so many strangers naked like animals.
Without my glasses and with the dense steam upon entering the next room, everything was in a blur. After slathering my skin with soap, rubbing my body with towels, and pouring bathwater over myself like the Japanese, I gingerly walked to the hot spring pool. Here I was, all bare, with nothing to cover myself because according to the Japanese etiquette, you have to be strictly naked in hot spring bath — no bathing suit or large towel around.
I wanted to leave. Maybe I am too shameful for this, I thought. But everyone in that steamy room seemed to be utterly unselfconscious about the nudity I found odd. Even though there might be embarrassing marks of ages, imperfect bellies, and loose creases, people were all at their own ease, in their bare essence, sharing a tacit trust and unspeakable intimacy. There is no rigid propriety but the enjoyment and concentration of selves.
Maybe that is the charm of public baths in Asian societies, for finally, people are taking off their guard, going back to nature, mingled and relaxed. As time grew heavy with the sulfur-smelled gas, I gingerly walked towards something that looked like mirth and liberation. There were about four hot spring pools indoor and one outside, each with its own purpose — herbal, immunity-bolstering, natural etc. I wanted to immerse myself in the hot cradling water while enjoying wild birds chirping in the idyllic nature, so I slipped into the outside pool.Crouching at a corner, I watched water turning into billowing steam and rising above the white-soiled mountain afar. In the lap of the steaming water, I recalled the last time I was in a public bath. It was in China during primary school. Then the newspaper agency my father worked was still state-owned, so it ran services like public baths and canteens. In cold winter, mother would bring me there to shower once a week after school. Sometimes we arrived during evening rush hour, and the changing room would be crowded with workers in their blue working outfits. If lucky, we shared shower heads with strangers and took turns to rinse ourselves. If not, we would wait till someone finish but as a child, aunties were always kind enough to save me from waiting in nakedness. And the most unpleasant thing was the rubbing. Mother always used a loofah mitt to whisk away dead skin cells on my back, and it felt like a knife scratching my skin. Unable to bear, I always cried ‘enough’ and as my yelling echoed in the steamy room, all women glared at me then broke into laughter.
But days of having public showers have long gone, for that public bathhouse was demolished after the privatization of the news agency and we bought a good water heater at home. Even around China, public bathhouses have become rare things as they are replaced by upscale modern spa centers. But for my father bathing is still an essential social activity. With just a few bucks, he can take a shower, get some scrubbing, watch other men play chess, talk politics and relax. On the day he goes to the only public bathhouse left in my hometown, he always leaves home early to get a good spot
in the pool. And when he comes back, he usually brings interesting tales and gossips. As all structures and classes of the outside world are erased in the water, everyone is equal and perhaps things are closer to truths.
As my fingers got wrinkly, I decided that I had stayed long enough for my body to absorb the supposedly sterilizing and beautifying effects of the water. Back in the changing room filled with undecipherable tongues, women put on their demure dresses and elaborate makeup. I suddenly felt a
twinge of sadness. I wanted to go back to the room where everyone is husked.
But I know, there would always be an end to a bath.
Quanzhi Quo is a sophomore at Colgate University. You can contact Quanzhi Guo at email@example.com.